Let the Scriptures Speak
Snapshots of A Growing Church
But you are 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a people of his own. (1 Pet 2:9)
In Acts, when Luke sketches scenes from the story of the early days of the Church in Jerusalem, he is not simply recording events. He is providing paradigms that portray something about the Church's nature. And the scenario we meet today in the First Reading is not entirely a pretty picture.
“At that time, as the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution [diakonia]” (6:1). The “Hellenists” are best understood as Greek-speaking Jews (probably people who grew up in the Diaspora and later emigrated to Judea). “Hebrews,” then, would be Aramaic-speaking Jews. We have evidence, even as far back as the Maccabees, that there had long been tension between the Jews who had taken on the language and even some of the ways of the Hellenistic world, on the one hand, and the more traditional Jews who preferred to speak Aramaic, on the other. The passage from Acts 6 (First Reading) lets us know that the infant Christian community of Jerusalem included Jews from both subgroups, and that becoming Christian did not automatically erase the “liberal/conservative” baggage that they brought with them. Luke informs us that the community had set up a daily distribution (of food?) to take care of the needy among them, especially widows. But the Greek-speaking widows were somehow being neglected.
Where did that neglect come from? A combination of scarcity and prejudice? Were the (“Hebrew”) Twelve favoring their own kind? Were they too busy to oversee the distribution properly? Whatever the cause of the neglect, the Twelve chose to apply a familiar practical solution: they increased the staff. Too busy with the diakonia of the word to tie up their time with serving at table (or, in another valid translation, “keeping accounts”), they call the entire community together and mandate it to select seven good men to carry out this other diakonia. That the seven chosen all have Greek names suggests a kind of affirmative action on the part of the community: they chose Greek-speaking members, thereby assuring that the neglect of Hellenist widows would be remedied. This freeing up of the apostles led to continuing rapid growth of the Church, even attracting some of the Temple priests to the fold.
This vignette shows the Spirit-filled community facing a very human set of problems and acting practically and faithfully. The Second Reading, from what appears to be a baptismal homily embedded in 1 Peter, describes the Church in a very different way. It is a densely layered poem made of imagery mined from the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms.
Urging the recently baptized, whom he calls "born again," the writer/homilist invites them to “come to [the Lord], a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God.” The author here draws upon an application to Jesus of Psalm 118:22 attributed both to Jesus himself (Luke 20:18) and to Peter (Acts 4:11). The original meaning of the psalm was to call Israel a stone rejected by the mighty empires around it but nonetheless destined to become a foundation stone in God's own victorious work. Such is now true of Jesus, the rejected stone now becomes the foundation stone of the “spiritual house,” the Church. The baptized person is encouraged to participate in the victory of his resurrection. Preparing to describe the community as temple, he calls Jesus a “living” stone to highlight the reality that the Church is no inanimate object but a living unity, in which the new Christian is a living stone.
Shifting the image slightly, but remaining in the Temple ambiance, the author reminds the baptized that they, collectively, are to grow into “a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Like Paul in Romans 12:1-2, Peter makes it clear that by “spiritual sacrifices” he means the basic relationships of community life: “Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth for sincere mutual love, love one another intensely from a [pure] heart.” (1 Pet 1:22) The author ends the poem by applying to the Church phrases used in Exodus 19:5-6 to describe the covenant community of Israel at Sinai: “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own.”
Luke the historian describes the Church facing a knotty administrative challenge. Peter describes the same Church in a poem that plays Hebrew refrains in a new key. Both picture the Church, ever human, always guided by a power greater than itself.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University